Finland – When a constitutional reform really works as intended

Earlier this month the Finnish president Sauli Niinistö visited Turkey where his host was Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish president. While Niinistö’s trip to Ankara made headlines mainly on account of the state of democracy and human rights in Turkey, the meeting of the two presidents provided a good example of the current role of the Finnish president.

Finland has experienced significant constitutional change since the late 1980s. The objective of these reforms was to strengthen parliamentarism after a long period of presidential dominance that reached its peak during the reign of President Urho Kekkonen (1956-1981). Finland was from the Second World War until the 1990s a president-led polity, but the current constitution, in force since 2000, completed a period of far-reaching constitutional change that curtailed presidential powers and parliamentarised the Finnish political system. However, it became very soon clear that the majority of political elite, not to mention constitutional lawyers, were somewhat unhappy with the constitution, arguing that it contains many articles which can produce unnecessary frictions between the government, the Eduskunta (the unicameral national parliament), and the president.

Indeed, the presidency of Tarja Halonen (2000-2012) was plagued with both open conflicts and behind-the-scenes tensions between the two executives. In EU matters, Finland was known for its policy of ‘two plates’, referring to the dual representation of both the prime minister and the president in European Council summits despite the fact that according to the constitution EU policy belongs to the competence of the government. Many felt that through participating in the European Council meetings, Halonen was acting against the spirit of the constitution. The government acquiesced to the situation, but was seemingly relieved when the Lisbon Treaty and the resulting changes to the European Council’s rules of procedure offered an external solution to the problem through allowing each country to be represented in the summits by either the prime minister or the president. The government wasted no time in dictating that the president would no longer attend European Council meetings. This was subsequently given constitutional status in 2012: ‘The Prime Minister represents Finland on the European Council. Unless the Government exceptionally decides otherwise, the Prime Minister also represents Finland in other activities of the European Union requiring the participation of the highest level of State.’

According to the constitution ‘The foreign policy of Finland is directed by the President of the Republic in co-operation with the Government.’ Such a dual leadership would naturally be tested in case of strong opinion differences between the president and the prime minister. Overall, the system has functioned rather smoothly thanks to regular exchange of views between the PM, the foreign minister, and the president. However, the constitutional amendments from 2012 also included a new conflict-resolution mechanism, with the position of the Eduskunta decisive in cases of disagreements between the president and the government. While only a small share of foreign policy matters, basically those issues necessitating formal decision-making, would probably be decided under that procedure, its symbolic value is important. Through underscoring the position of the Eduskunta, it further consolidates the government’s authority in foreign policy.

Turning to domestic matters, the president has retained the suspensive veto in legislation (the president has three months to confirm a law approved by Eduskunta but the latter can override president’s potential veto). However, whereas under the old rules the president formally determined that a bill shall be introduced in the Eduskunta, since 2012 the government is responsible for initiating the parliamentary processing of legislation. This change was logical as the involvement of the president was purely symbolic given that she could not really prevent cabinet’s legislative proposals from being introduced in the parliament. More importantly, the president’s appointment powers were further reduced in 2012 – a change motivated no doubt by the fact that President Halonen several times vetoed government’s proposals, appointing instead persons of her own choice to leading civil service positions. Most significantly, the president no longer appoints permanent secretaries who are the leading civil servants in the ministries.

The constitutional amendments from 2012 appear to have produced the intended results: the president is excluded from domestic policy, EU matters are now strictly reserved for the government, and the last remaining area of presidential powers is foreign and defence policy. Here a logical division of labour seems to have emerged: the government is responsible for those issues handled through the European Union, whereas the president focuses on bilateral ties with non-EU countries, especially those lead by presidents.

The on-going crisis in Ukraine has certainly given Niinistö much exposure, with the president engaging in active talks with his Russian counterpart. Since Finland joined the EU, one of the major issues in foreign policy has been finding a balance between maintaining bilateral links with the eastern neighbor while contributing to the EU’s common foreign and security policy. When Halonen was in office her activism towards Russia was not always welcomed by the government, but now the cabinet has not stood in the way of Niinistö. The more comfortable relationship between the two executives is no doubt facilitated by party politics, as Niinistö is from the conservative National Coalition and governments appointed since 2011 have been led by centre-right prime ministers. Halonen, a social democrat, in turn had to share power from 2003 onwards with centre-right PMs. However, more important are the new constitutional rules that have reduced the potential for conflicts through carefully delineating the remaining powers of the president.

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